Abraham Lincoln was particularly gifted in taking a Scripture passage and applying it to a specific situation. In his 1858 “House Divided” speech, Lincoln interpreted Mark 3:24, 25 and focused on the situation facing the country regarding slavery.
If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.
Lincoln used the passage to address how the country’s inability to deal with the slavery issue would divide the country. The division eventually led to the secession of southern states and the Civil War.
The passage is appropriate for United Methodists today. We are a denomination that is divided along theological and geographical lines. Considering this, we could translate Mark 3:24, 25 to address the situation facing the United Methodist Church.
If a denomination is divided against itself, that denomination cannot stand. If a church is divided against itself, that church cannot stand.
What 2012 has shown us is the word “united” is not always the best modifier of the people called “Methodists.” It might be the least appropriate word. General Conference was defined by distrust and disunity, especially among evangelicals and progressives. This was largely focused on the issue of homosexuality in the church. Recently, two jurisdictional conferences voted to ignore part of the church’s teaching on this issue.
We are not a unified body of believers. If anything, we are increasingly defined by our theological differences. Once again, a denomination divided against itself cannot (and will not) stand.
I do not believe schism is the answer. I do not believe the United Methodist Church should break apart along regional or theological lines.
Perhaps I am naive, but I believe the word united in United Methodist means something beyond a historical acknowledgement of the United Evangelical Brethren Church, which merged with the Methodist Church in 1968 to form the United Methodist Church. The word united can be our guide to what unites us as Christians and Methodists. An acknowledgement of what unites us can help lead to open and honest discussions about what divides us.
As United Methodists, we are united by our faith in Jesus Christ. This should be our most unifying identifier. By our faith in Christ we become members of the family God. We are identified and unified by our relationship with Christ and our status as redeemed in the eyes of God. Our faith in Christ is the most important thing about us. No other identities should come before this. Too often we forget this and desire to be identified and unified by various caucus groups or age representations. Some of these groups have helped to create the disunity that exists throughout the denomination. Our identities as evangelical or progressive, young or senior adult, all fall at the feet of the cross and become secondary to the greater reality of Christ’s presence and salvation.
We must be united by our desire to share the Gospel and to make disciples. The most important role for the church – any church – is to share the message of the Gospel and to help others to see God’s grace in their life. This is the main thing of our ministry and mission. As followers of Christ, our calling is to tell the entire world of the Good News of Jesus Christ. Too often, we get distracted from this calling and try to take on too much. It is easy to become proclaimers of political realities. It is difficult to be consistent proclaimers of the Gospel, when it is a message the world needs to hear but doesn’t always want to hear it. As a church (both at the denomination and local levels), our focus must be on the main thing. Our ministries, missions, and giving must be defined by the mission to share the Good News. If an activity falls outside this main thing, then we must reevaluate this practice and adjust our missional practices.
We are unified by our commonalities. There is more, I believe, that unites us as United Methodists than divides us. These go beyond the commonalities that were previously mentioned. We hold common our identity as children of God. Our identity as children of God is not limited to those who support our ideas of mission or theology. It includes all who were created in the image of God, which means all of us.We share a common theological heritage from John Wesley and the early church. The conjunctive nature of Wesleyan theology serves as a reminder that we do not operate in an “either/or” reality, but a “both/and.” As Wesleyans, we honor a commitment to the love of God and holy living. We also are committed to evangelism and social justice. These serve as a reminder that we need both to effectively serve Christ and proclaim the Good News of our Lord.
I pray for the day that the United Methodist Church is no longer defined by disunity, but a common desire to spread the Gospel. It will take time for this to occur, because our disunity is common to the disunity that exists throughout our country. We are a polarized nation and that affects all aspects of our lives, including the church. Disunity damages what unites us and hinders the movement of the church.
To reverse this trend, we must embrace what unifies us as children of God and United Methodists. When we see what unites us we are more willing and able to embrace our differences and learn from one another. Even more, we are no longer faced with the dangers of being a denomination divided against itself.